School District Accused of Webcam Spying

A student's parents have sued a Pennsylvania school district, claiming the district used a Webcam on a school-issued laptop to spy on their son. The district says it has now disabled the feature that allowed it to turn on the Webcam remotely.

A Pennsylvania couple has accused the local school district of spying on their son by means of a Webcam on a school-issued laptop.

Michael Robbins and Holly Robbins of Penn Valley, Penn., filed a lawsuit (PDF) Feb. 11 in U.S. District Court against the Lower Merion School District, in Ardmore, Penn. The complaint, which the couple filed on behalf of their minor son, Blake Robbins, alleges that the school district invaded students' privacy.

According to the suit, the district issued laptops to high school students as part of a technology initiative, and did not notify families the laptops were equipped with Webcams that could be turned on remotely. The family alleged in the suit they did not learn of the capability until school officials accused Blake Robbins of "improper behavior in his home" and cited as evidence a photograph from the Webcam embedded in the laptop.

"As the laptops at issue were routinely used by students and family members while at home, it is believed and therefore averred that many of the images captured and intercepted may consist of images of minors and their parents or friends in compromising or embarrassing positions, including, but not limited to, various stages or dress or undress," the complaint alleges.

In response to the suit, the school district posted a statement on its Website from the school superintendent declaring that the district is "dedicated to protecting and promoting student privacy" and that the ability to turn on the Webcams remotely was intended as a security feature.

"Laptops are a frequent target for theft in schools and off school property," Superintendent Christopher McGinley wrote. "The security feature was installed to help locate a laptop in the event it was reported lost, missing or stolen so that the laptop could be returned to the student."

The feature has been turned off, and will not be reactivated "without express written notification to all students and families," McGinley stated.

"We regret if this situation has caused any concern or inconvenience among our students and families," he wrote. "We are reviewing the matter and will provide an additional update as soon as information becomes available."